D&Q’s Comic Books II: Berlin #17

Posted by on January 19th, 2011 at 5:37 AM

Rob reviews Berlin #17, the first issue of the last segment of Jason Lutes’ long-running series and the second comic discussed in a three-part series about comics from Drawn & Quarterly.

In my review of the second volume of the collected Berlin, subtitled City of Smoke, I mused on the potential meaning of this subtitle: “The title could refer to any number of possibilities, but my take relates to how one can’t grab on or hold on to smoke. It appears, it may linger, but it eventually dissipates. One simply has to wait for the smoke to clear, as it were, revealing harsh truths.”  With Berlin #17, the first issue of the last chapter of the saga, we learn that its subtitle is City of Light.  The problem is that the light has burned away the last wisps of smoke, revealing the harsh reality of creeping fascism.  Lutes shows his hand right away when we are suddenly confronted by the introducting of Adolf Hitler into the storyline.  The Hitler we meet here is not the charismatic speech-maker or ranting lunatic we normally think of, but rather a subdued, calculating manipulator who is setting up his world in us vs. them terms.

Picking up a little bit after the last issue left off, the reader also gets to peek in on the lives of three of the major characters in the series.  Kurt Severing, the intrepid journalist who now sees himself as completely ineffectual in the face of the National Socialist party, is looking haggard and defeated.  Visiting the Communist headquarters in Berlin to sign up for the cause, he’s repulsed by the same kind of propaganda, violence and rabble-rousing methodology used by the Fascists and winds up leaving, more downtrodden than ever.  Marthe’ the wide-eyed art student is more oblivious to the political goings-on than ever as she continues to be dazzled by her lover.  Silvia the orphan continues to flit between working with the Communists and associating with her scavenger friends; day-to-day survival (along with a healthy dose of anger at injustice) is her only concern.

Lutes’ line and design sense is as refined as ever.  The issue starts with some workers ploughing land near a railroad track, with one noting a passing train brings “The sound of progress”.  That’s the train with Hitler on it, as we go from country to the heart of Germany’s battlefield for control: Berlin.  As we’re introduced to the “City of Light” chapter title, Lutes presents a gorgeous two-page spread featuring the sun rising over the city.  While it initially seems a little too on-the-nose as a visual, we quickly see that the light is a harsh one, as we first see Severing in silhouette, only to quickly reveal him as sweaty and weary.   This issue is all about sweep, and the way Lutes moves from character to character is unusually dramatic for this series.  Berlin has been all about small character moments in the face of history’s tide, but this issue indicates that no one has the luxury of engaging in such moments anymore.  Even Marthe’ and her lover Anna have been discovered by their landlady, an event that will no doubt have repercussions down the line.

It will be interesting to see if Lutes can maintain the restraint he’s displayed throughout the series while sweeping his characters up in the rise of Hitler and a world that became ugly and brutal.  One doesn’t need to go all-out to let the reader know that the Nazis were bad; instead, Lutes has been careful to document the conditions under which the rise of National Socialism became possible.  As long as he sticks to the specific life events of his characters and doesn’t lean too heavily on easy tragedy, Lutes has the potential to finish Berlin‘s run with distinction, matching the precision of his craft with the power of his character-driven narrative.

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